B ack in the old days, everything seemed to be slower. Food, cars, and yes, even love and sex. This was before cable TV, and way before smartphones. This was pre-globalisation, when the restrictions imposed by social mores and parental expectations kept in check the expressions of love and lust. In those days, it seemed that the only romantic opportunities you had were with people in your immediate circle of friends and acquaintances. Your world was small, and so were your expectations, and there was little to distract you from the path to love and commitment in the microcosm that you existed in.
A young man and a woman would exchange lingering looks across a room, kindling a slow-burning fire that often ended at the altar. Coyness was the name of the game—a sideways glance, a whispered word, a lingering touch.
But in new India, things have changed drastically. Two powerful forces have irrevocably and dramatically altered relationships today—rapid socio-economic change post-globalisation, and that shatterer of small worlds: the Internet revolution.
India is today demographically the youngest country in the world, and one that has also seen a radical transformation in value systems, economic opportunity and consumerism. A young person today is very ambitious, and there are plenty of opportunities to aspire for. But attaining material success requires extraordinary time and energy, given the competition. And this leaves little time for building relationships that have depth. In this new India, it has finally become more common to choose your own partner. We may be at a point where we can say that love, aided by all that technology, is finally free. But alongside this freedom have also come invisible psychological barriers to relationships—the side-effects of fast paced living, as the world clamours for your attention, stimulating your senses, inundating you with information, tempting you with multiple opportunities.
These psychological changes have been amplified considerably by the Internet, and smartphones have taken them to another level. Did you know that throughout our glorious history of technology, that streches thousands of years, right until the internet age, the human brain has remained largely unchanged. The internet is the biggest environmental change that our ancient neural systems have confronted. This is not hyperbole. Studies have shown that our brain is being reshaped by our use of the Internet. The benefits of the Internet, of course, are obvious and many. But less obvious and perhaps more insidious is its effect on the brain, personality, mood and relationships. Studies prove that when people use social media, it makes them less empathetic, decreases attention spans and makes it more difficult for people to delay gratification.
These changes are already affecting our existing and future relationships. Our social brain craves approval and so people seek “likes” on Facebook, in many cases even basing their self-worth and happiness from social media activity.
Social media also provokes envy as people compare their own lives, their possessions, even their spouses and partners with their friends’, often feeling that their life is inadequate and dull compared to the wonderful lives of others, as seen on social media. True intimacy is naturally thus being replaced by a pseudo intimacy: “Hugs” and “i love yous”, on Facebook seldom translate into anything substantial in the real world.
But even more striking are the effects of technology on dating and relationships. According to research firm GlobalWebIndex, approximately six per cent of web users currently use dating apps, which amounts to a roughly $4 billion worldwide market. Though still at a preliminary stage, India, with over 250 million singles aged between 18 and 34 and 235 million smartphone users, happens to be one of the largest and most promising dating markets in the world, which probably explains the explosion of dating apps here. According to digital data resource Mindshift Interactive, nearly 33 per cent couples meet online today and 67 per cent of singles know someone who has met or romanced online. Take Tinder, for example. One of the world’s most popular dating apps, its usage in India apparently jumped 400 per cent in 2015. India is among its top five growing markets and the largest in Asia, attracting over 14 million swipes each day in the age bracket 19-25. For those not familiar with Tinder (hello, where have you been?), it’s a dating app, where you see people’s profiles, and swipe left to reject or right to accept, based mainly on the profile photograph and a few words. There is no pretense of depth on Tinder. You put your photograph up, and hope that someone likes how you look.
On Tinder, you are a commodity, objectified, assessed, and judged with a casualness that belies the fact that each of these profiles represents a human being, a breathing living, muti-faceted individual with a rich history, talents and strengths. But Tinder is not the place Romeo comes to look for his Juliet, a Laila for her Majnu. Tinder is way too postmodern for that.
Who has time for a slow burn, when you can light a fire with the swipe of a touchscreen? Tinder promises “hookups”, which is also a millennial slang for ‘no strings attached sex’—that means sex without any emotional expectation, physical intimacy without emotional intimacy, mingling of body fluids, the souls hermetically separate.
But while hook ups are the promise of Tinder, it’s not clear how people are actually using it for that purpose in India.
Many people do ‘hook up’ on this app, but many others go on platonic dates that may or may not progress to anything else. Studies in the US have also suggested that many users on Tinder never progress beyond a few lines exchanged, a few pleasantries and cosmetic greetings.
Users claim Tinder is addictive and the experience for the brain is akin to gambling: novelty, excitement, unpredictability, and something called, “variable intermittent reward”. On Tinder, as in with gambling, you are rewarded at unpredictable intervals, and this strongly reinforces your desire to keep trying—after all, who knows, you may get lucky with the next swipe. But as with most addictions, Tinder can be harmful. It can create transient pleasure while increasing discomfort and pain. In fact, research shows that Tinder users tend to have a lowered self-esteem—with its emphasis and reward for the external, Tinder makes people judge themselves by their body and looks.
The emotions evoked by love, infatuation and heartbreak can become overwhelming, especially in a country culturally unprepared for these situations. The hurt and obsession evoked by unrequited love can trigger catastrophic reactions. Many people undergoing heartbreak desire revenge and retribution and, in the worst cases, people even physically hurt the person who has broken their heart. Some try to get even by venting on Facebook or posting ‘revenge pictures’ of their ex in compromising positions. Men and women both experience anger, though they often express it in different ways. Men are more prone to acts of violence, sometimes even hurting their ex because anger has clouded their thinking and rationality—there are many unfortunate instances of ex-boyfriends who have assaulted, thrown acid at and even murdered their exes. “If I can’t get her nobody else will,” is the tragic, entitled thinking that drives this behavior. Others don’t vent their anger; instead the anger simmers along and permeates their being until it seems to take up permanent residence, changing their personality and outlook to life.
Millions of young men and women from towns and villages now leave their homes and move to cities for greener pastures, primarily academic and career opportunities—this mass migration and displacement naturally leading to a sort of new-age isolation.
Ironically, loneliness is a problem even in our densely populated country; you can live amidst a bustling population of more than 1.2 billion people here, but living in amidst this swarming collective, you may still experience urban loneliness. Water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink!
Loneliness is a toxic insidious condition, afflicting people in urban societies all over the world, and known to cause depression, stress and an increased risk of diseases. Millions of people longing for real connection with another human being turn to social media and apps to assuage the gnawing loneliness, but in many cases, these apps simply intensify the feelings that you seek to relieve. Each superficial and unsatisfactory encounter only depletes you further, worsening feelings of emptiness and lonesomeness.
Those who suffer from a low self-esteem can become dependent on love, attention and appreciation to feel good about themselves. They may turn to Tinder to seek attention, perhaps in the form of sex or romance, but instead of a secure relationship, they are more often than not pulled into a vortex of attachment and loss, desire and abandonment.
The roller coaster ride of one casual fling after another can result in a deeper loneliness, one that can cause depression. And in the vulnerable, even suicide.
I wonder sometimes if Tinder is doing to relationships what Uber did to car ownership. Car ownership deceased because of Uber—as in you don’t have to own a car since you can always get one on demand. Why spend all that money to buy a car and hire a driver when you can get the same things on demand without long-term commitment. Tinder pretty much brings the same scale and efficiency to relationships—I mean, why commit to a long-term relationship when you can get a semblance of love and sex on a mutual sort of demand?
Reports from the West suggest that Tinder has wreaked havoc for those seeking a committed relationship. When there’s always the promise of another person, more choices and newer opportunities waiting to be accessed at any time, then people naturally become less committed, and more dissatisfied with relationships. Fewer people want to deal with the discomfort and realities of long term relationships, and it seems, increasingly prefer short-term, less emotionally intimate relationships.
As a psychiatrist, I don’t have a moral position or judgment about people’s behaviour. I am more interested in health—whether a certain behaviour is psychologically healthy or not. What are the effects of social changes on our emotions, behaviour and relationships? From that perspective, the use of Tinder and similar dating apps seems to decrease the quality of authentic relationships and does not portend for a healthy society.
What relationships will look like in a few decades is unclear.
But I remain optimistic that we will find our way back to love and genuine relationships. Perhaps we will rewrite the rules of commitment for a while, but eventually life is cyclical. Just as people enjoyed processed food for a long time, but are now waking up to the benefits of natural organic and wholesome food, we may enjoy the fast-food of Tinder and fast-paced and convenient dating apps, but eventually the novelty of hook ups and no strings attached unemotional sex will wear off. The artificial makes us appreciate the natural.
Tinder and dating apps will, in my view, eventually make us even more appreciative of real companionship, security and the warmth of genuine relationships.
But that could take a while. So until then, swipe with caution, please!
A recent study has found an association between social comparison on Facebook and depression. The Lancaster University review of existing research suggests that comparing yourself with others on Facebook is more likely to lead to feelings of depression than making social comparisons offline. That’s one of the findings from a review of all the research on the links between social networking and depression by David Baker and Dr Guillermo Perez Algorta from Lancaster University. They examined studies from 14 countries with 35,000 participants aged between 15 and 88. There are among 1.8 billion people on online social networking sites worldwide, with Facebook alone having more than a billion active users. Concerns over the effect on mental health led the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2011 to give a proper definition to depression caused by prolonged Facebook activity.
(Dr. Shyam Bhat is one of India’s leading psychiatrists, founder of Seraniti.com and author of the bestseller A Psychiatrist’s Guide to Healing from Heartbreak. He is also a trustee at the Live Love Laugh Foundation that works to raise awareness about mental health.)